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The Phoenix Suns are hoping to bounce back from one of the worst seasons in franchise history this year, and general manager Ryan McDonough and head coach Earl Watson are leaving no stone unturned. They’re shuffling their starting lineup, trying schematic changes on offense … and, apparently, even taking a long, hard look at how often they touch each other.
Cody Cunningham of Suns.com explains:
“We have a high-five stat,” Head Coach Earl Watson said following [Monday’s] 91-86 [preseason] victory [over the San Antonio Spurs]. “I’m being honest with you. This is true. So we want to keep track of how many high-fives we get per game to each other.” […]
Dacher Keltner, Professor of Psychology at UC Berkeley, in 2015 took one game of every NBA team at the start of the year and coded all of the fist bumps, embraces and high fives.
“Controlling for how much money they’re making, the expectations that they would do well during that season, how well they we’re doing in that game,” Keltner said. “Not only did they win more games but there’s really nice basketball statistics of how selfless the play is.”
Keltner found that the teams that made more contact with each other were helping out more on defense, setting more screens, and overall playing more efficiently and cooperatively.
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Keltner’s findings support those of multiple previous studies that have shown a correlation between the amount of time NBA players spend touching members of their team — whether by chest-bumps, fist-pounds or, yes, high-fives — and their teams’ success on the court.
“It looks like at least in these really specific team settings, touch communicates cooperation and trust between people,” Michael Kraus, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, and co-author of one such study told LiveScience back in 2010. “So in our study, touching is highly correlated with cooperative behaviors.”
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The Suns aren’t the first NBA team to buy into this research, or to reap its benefits. The Dallas Mavericks were significantly more touchy-feely during the 2011 NBA Finals than their opponents, the Miami Heat; Dallas went on to win the series, four games to two.
In fact, this year’s model isn’t even the first Phoenix squad to delve into the dividends of dap. Reaching out and touching someone was not only a staple of the Steve Nash-era, “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns, but also something they kept track of:
“Put this all together, and we can say that touch makes us feel better by releasing soothing hormones and communicating a sense of trust and compassion,” wrote Mic’s Jack Fischl back in 2013.
You might not find these results to be particularly compelling. A team that plummeted from 48 wins and the verge of the playoffs to just 23 victories last season can’t afford to turn up its nose at any potential avenue of improvement, though. Even if all that comes out of it is the Suns’ mix of ball-handling guards, aging vets and potential-packing pups getting the momentary jolt that comes from a good pound … well, that’s better than the near-total absence of fond feeling that characterized most of last season in Phoenix, right?
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